Thursday, May 6

Riding Bikes to Work

Note: This post was inspired by the conjunction of the posts at Bike Commuters and Cycle*Dallas, here, and here.

Bicycle commuting is mainly met with excuses people come up with NOT to do it. They cite safety, though it is actually MUCH safer, done properly, than driving. They cite "I'm out of shape," despite it being a low physical stress activity due to its efficiency. They talk about sweat, despite there being many proven ways to avoid that as a real obstacle. They talk about heat, or cold, despite clothing being a proven technology. I'm surprised they don't cite fear of alien abduction as a reason! As a matter of fact, they cite just about every reason one could imagine other than the REAL reason they don't commute; namely that they really don't enjoy riding a bike very much and would rather spend their time doing other things. Perhaps they simply think riding a bike is childish, or something only poor losers do. I have no idea why they feel compelled to make up nonsense excuses instead of just saying "I don't like bikes or biking." Perhaps it is the same sort of guilt that accompanies not eating vegetables.

OTOH, there ARE solid reasons why people don't bike commute. Some are expected to use their motor vehicle as part of their work, or they work at multiple sites too far apart to get from one to another on a bike. Those people cannot bike commute. Some are told by management that bike commuting is not acceptable. THEY cannot bike commute unless they find another job. Some are threatened by family members and THEY may not be able to bike commute.

And then, there are gray areas. I know bike commuters that ride regardless of how cold or hot it gets, and even a crazy few that actually seek out electrical storms, but most of us have limits beyond which we rarely ride. And then, there's distance. The problem with distance is not what most people think. It's not the physical effort, or the safety, it is the TIME. Viewed objectively, an hour of bike commuting is an hour much more usefully spent than an hour of motor vehicle commuting, but even if you throw in gym workout time, there comes a distance beyond which the saddle time becomes difficult to justify.

  • Under a mile - This is a good walk distance that is hardly worth biking.
  • Under five miles - Bike it! This is the sweet spot for bike commuting unless you are determined to make up a phony excuse. Factoring in exercise, this distance range saves time compared to motor commuting.
  • Under ten miles - This is practical for almost everyone, but mild dedication is needed. Up to this point, when you combine bike commuting and exercise, you are probably achieving a net savings by bike commuting.
  • Under fifteen miles - You are well beyond the routine bike commuter. On the other hand, you get good saddle time for only a reasonable time penalty.
  • Under twenty miles - We're talking about serious commute time
  • Over twenty miles - You get to the outer fringe of bike commuters, and maybe beyond.
Even if you live too far from work to bike commute every day, there are alternatives. Some people can multi-mode between a bike and transit, though buses are rarely faster than simply biking the whole way. Some can drive part way to work and bike part way. If nothing else, you can bike commute some days and drive some days. Remember, if you live twenty miles from work, and bike commute ONE day a week, you are bike commuting the same distance as someone that lives four miles from work and does it every day.

As in so many cycling areas NOT involving attempts to play amateur psychologist, or politician, I think John Forester described bike commuting better than anyone else I've ever read. I reread that chapter of Effective Cycling when I start to feel discouraged about the commute distances I need to go, and it cheers me up again. Thanks, and happy "Ride Your Bike to Work Month!"


Dottie said...

Great post! I like how you call out the lame excuse makers, while also acknowledging that some people have real hurdles to bike commuting.

Happy bikey month!

Ham said...

Speaking from beyond the fringe.... .you may not be familiar with the classic UK show of that name... for Peter Cook and I'm not sure if Rowan Atkinson's sketch was part of it but it should have been. Have a happy Friday.

Rantwick said...

As one of the crazy few who seek bad weather, let me say that was a really good post, if a little lacking in lightning.

I recently heard somebody say that they didn't want to bike to work because it takes the fun out of it and even makes pleasure riding less pleasurable. I don't get it at all. They asked me, "well, do you bike for pleasure very much"?

My answer at the time was yes, on the weekends in summer I go for longer rides. What I should have said was yes, I bike for pleasure every day, on my commute! I really don't know why the fact that you're doing something practical would take much of the fun out of it... it sure doesn't for me.

Hey, sorry. Didn't mean to write a book there.

Velouria said...

This is not an attack on you, just a rant, but...

Personally, I think that the whole wording of "excuses for not cycling" that the culture of cycling activism uses is alarming. It presupposes that cycling is "the right thing to do" and "the moral thing to do" and reminds me of religious activists talking about people's "excuses for not going to church".

Why are statements about why a person does not cycle labeled as "excuses" as opposed to "reasons"?... Cycling is just a personal choice regardless of how universally "moral" some believe it to be. To be honest, I almost want to stop cycling when I see this "excuses" wording in blogs.

Ham said...

Velouria, IMO Steve is making the difference between reasons and excuses, without taking a moral high ground in the way you seem to have interpreted. The question that he raises is, what is the _real_ reason for choosing not to cycle?

It is understandable if people do not choose to cycle in bad weather, it is more than understandable if people don't have the confidence to ride city streets. But what they cite as reasons are often excuses. That's no problem either, but it is a barrier. Once people get to the other side of that barrier they also can see that. What's wrong with pointing that out?

So, you are right. It is rather like religious activists talking about people's excuses for not going to church; most times what people really mean mostly is that they can't be bothered sufficiently. Me? when I'm asked I say I'm a non-believer and I will not go, the straightforward truth.

However I'd advocate that cycling is good for everyone: the cyclist, the driver, the world - it's much harder to see a downside than for religion. Plus you don't go to hell if you get on the wrong bike.

Steve A said...

Perhaps I was too subtle. In the context of the post, "excuse" is just a made up plausible reason you come up with not to do something. As in "I don't bike commute because it doesn't appeal to me" is a reason while "I'd bike commute if there were bike lanes" is an excuse - especially if the one saying it had no intention of doing it no matter how many bike lanes got put in.

That being said, I must agree that the expectation that people should somehow feel bad grates on me at times, though most so when the expectation is being made by someone clueless about cycling. Like in the annual sanctimonious reporter who rides down the sidewalk three blocks without getting squashed.

cafiend said...

Nice post. I like commuting by bike and believe more people could do it if they tried. But I have also acknowledged for a long time that a significant number of people will not be able to, no matter how much they would like to. Not all bike advocates (zealots) see it that way.

You make an EXCELLENT point about time. When I have to cover my usual commuting distance in a shorter time, I have to drive the car, no matter how nice a day it is. The route is 14.3 inbound and 15+ by my typical route home. If I use the Disappointing Excuse for a Rail Trail to get out of town, the fact that it is shorter is offset by the difficulty of keeping a high average speed with the irregular surface, rail crossings and difficult passing in the narrow space.

People like motor vehicles because they can carry plenty of stuff with them and it seems faster, even at times when it runs out not to be. Over open roads, it really is.

The advantage to the cyclist is the combination of fun and fitness with the necessary commute. Also, the cyclist saves money on gasoline and wear and tear on the car. That adds up surprisingly quickly even when one manages to use the bike only some of the work days.

When I lived in a small city I could walk or bike everywhere. I like the boonies where I live, but I miss the ability to go without a car.

In my 30s and 40s I would ride my commute and then go train. That led to an 80-mile day sandwiched around a day of work on occasion. Where the hell did I get THAT energy?

Steve A said...

I have to hop out of bed a full hour earlier when I bike commute. Sometimes that is very hard to do.

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